Monday, 22 October 2012

RISI E BISI and Across The River And Into The Trees we go!

Give me Pasta e Piselli, give me Risotto con Piselli, I love them both! Who can resist such glorious, gratifying combinations? Who indeed, especially when fresh peas are in season! I do cook Risi e Bisi, but I refer to it in the boring vernacular: risotto with peas. What's wrong with me? What indeed? This Venetian recipe deserves a more poetic name. And also one that rhymes! Yes, Risi e Bisi! 
I've been reading Ernest Hemingway's "Across The River And Into The Trees," for the current edition of the online book club that is Novel Food.  The plot of the novel unfolds in Venice, and it seems to me that a plateful of Risi e Bisi will make a very nice accompaniment to my reading endeavour. Of course, not a single character in the novel eats risotto (or risi e bisi). They tackle huge lobsters served with mayonnaise, they order scaloppine, and cauliflower, and mashed potatoes, and lots of wine. As is usual with Hemingway, there's plenty of alcohol making the rounds, and there abound numerous passages having to do with guns, or hunting, or eating of freshly killed game. Then there are the war stories ... 
The characters saunter in and out of Harry's Bar, and in one lively passage, Richard Cantwell, the protagonist, pays an early morning visit to the Rialto Market. It's like going to a museum, he tells us. He purchases sausage for an upcoming hunting trip, then works his way closer to the Grand Canal where the pescheria is located. He finds razor clams for sale and orders half a dozen. The fishmonger shucks them open and passes the knife to him. With masterful strokes, better than those of a professional fisherman, Cantwell uses the knife to separate the flesh from the shells and uneatable parts. He eats each clam on the spot, savouring its saltwater liquor.
Let me stick to my Risi e Bisi. However, I do intend to order a vicarious order of a dozen oysters (I prefer them to clams). I'll order them only if they can be shucked for me by Hemingway. We'll share them on the spot, right in the Rialto Pescharia, six for me, six for Hemingway.
The late 1940s: very famous now, and courting his fame, here's Hemingway at the Rialto market. The fish aren't as large as the marlin he was used to catching but he still likes to look them over. Perhaps he's taking notes for "Across the River and Into the Trees." The novel is a thinly veiled account of certain escapades he partook in while living in Venice. Hemingway had a very difficult personality but there was an underside to it that was big-hearted and fragile. He had too many demons to conquer; we all carry demons from our youth. I believe Ernest Hemingway came across too many of them as a result of his debilitating injuries and experiences during the Great War. Writing was his saving grace and was at times magnificent. Despite his misogynistic attitudes, his hard-living, and his hard-drinking, I have a fondness for this man. I can't say the same for other authors who engage in similar lifestyles. Heminway was unique, and his prose was unique. I think he was one of the good guys.  
Mercato di Rialto: The Rialto vegetable market and the large fish market, the pescheria are located at the edge of Venice's Grand Canal, within close proximity to the Rialto bridge. Hemingway was staying at the Gritti Palace Hotel and in the novel so was Richard Cantwell. There's a lovely passage with Cantwell walking to the Rialto market by taking a long way round: he crosses the canal from the Gritti, wanders all through the Dorsoduro, has a near confrontation with a couple of fascists right by the Basilica dei Frari, and eventually approaches the pescheria from the back, walking towards the stall of a fishmonger close to the Grand Canal. 
Razor clams from the Adriatic, and, of course, oysters. 

Razor clams are cylindrical, thin, long molluscs with fragile shells. They live burrowed in the sand just beneath the seafloor. These guys resemble a barber's razor, thus the name. The Venetians call them cappelunghe and consider them to be a delicacy because their taste is more tender than that of other clams. At the Rialto pescheria one can purchase them for around 26 to 28 euros per kilo which is less than half the price of the razor clams found in the US, where unless one lives near a coastal area such as New England, Maryland, or the Pacific Northwest, they are difficult to find. I've discovered that where I live in the Philadelphia suburbs, they can only be bought freeze-dried or canned in brine. An option is to order them online, and they will arrive at one's doorstep shelled and frozen. Cappelunghe can be eaten raw if there is still life in them. When cooked, simple is best: grilled and served with olive oil, lemon, parsley: go for the authentic Mediterranean method and it will pay off. (Yes, razor clams are inexpensive in Italy. Comparatively speaking. However, this is not enough reason to pack them in one's suitcase and bring them home to the US. Fair warning: not a good idea).

To tell you the truth, I feel sorry for these little critters that are dug up from their sandy home. Let them live, I say, let them live!


When I was a kid in Greece, I would swim out to a shoal that was accessible beneath shallow water at low tide. By digging in the sand with my feet or by diving with goggles  if I could borrow goggles from my brother  I would find various bivalves: tiny clams, cockles, Venus clams, occasionally a scallop or two, and whelks, amazing whelks which are actually sea snails as I have found out. The whelks strolled on the seafloor beneath sparse clouds of sand. Fascinated with all my discoveries, I would pick up a specimen, examine it, place it back and move on to check the next one. 


Farther down, swimming through a pier, I could see colonies of blue-black mussels thriving on the pilings. They were placid in their stillness; they just hung out on the pilings. But for some reason, they startled me and I never dared to go near them. The shoal, however, was a fun place. Once, I dug up a cockle and decided to take it with me simply because it had a more interesting shell than all the others: deeper ridges, more pronounced burnished colourings, and a perfect size and shape to hold on to as I swam back to shore. 


I watched this creature come close to death (and perhaps it did soon die). Did I want it as a pet? I can't say. Soon as I arrived home, I placed it in a soup bowl filled with seawater I had carried with me in a plastic bucket, my most necessary beach accessory at the time. It's worth mentioning, that to my annoyance, the seawater was not blue anymore but had instead become colourless. This transformation took place every time I carried a part of the sea out of the sea. 


While inside the soup bowl, the mollusc kept sending out its orange-pinkish coloured foot to explore its environment, to try and dig itself a home: it was painful to watch this lost creature. I knew it was in danger, perhaps mortal danger. The next morning I returned it to the sea.  Back then, in childhood, I was certain it would recover.

Venetians cook risi e bisi to a consistency that's somewhere between a soup and a risotto. Call it a thick soup and eat it with a spoon. This dish is served especially on the 25th of April to celebrate the feast day of Saint Mark, the city's patron saint. Here's how I cook Risi e Bisi, a Venetian treat: 
8 cups vegetable broth (plus a little more if needed)
2 cups peas (if fresh peas are available, by all means, buy them and use them. Shell them to yield 2 cups and reserve the pea shells for the broth)
if frozen peas are to be used, have ready 2 cups of pea shells such as from snow peas
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped well
2 celery ribs, chopped well
1 cup arborio rice
1 tablespoon finely chopped dill
3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
2 or 3 scallions, use the white and light green parts, chopped.
¼ cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
black pepper to taste (no need to use salt, there is salt in the cheese and the broth) 

Ready for their closeup! 
  • Use four cups of the broth for the pea shells: boil the pea shells in four cups of vegetable broth until they are almost melting away. Let them boil until the broth has been reduced by half. At that point, the pea shells will have become very soft and they will have yielded all their flavour. With a slotted spoon remove and discard the shells. Reserve the pea-flavoured broth, keeping it separated from the rest of the vegetable broth. 
  • Meanwhile, heat the other four cups of broth and keep them warm so that they are ready for the risi e bisi. Have a ladle nearby. 
  • Heat the oil in a Dutch oven and add the onion and celery. 
  • Cook for about 5 minutes, then add the rice and cook for 3 minutes, stirring all the while. 
  • Add the concentrated broth (2 cups) and the dill, and keep stirring until the broth has been absorbed by the rice. 
  • Add another 3 cups of broth, and bring to a boil.
  • Add the scallions.
  • Lower the heat to simmer, cover and let cook for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  • Cook the peas in one cup of broth. Cook them for about ten minutes, (less if you prefer): peas cook very quickly and you don't want them overcooked.
  • Add the peas to the rice and stir. By now, both the rice and the peas should be tender.
  • Mix in the parsley, the grated cheese, and add freshly ground black pepper to taste. 
  • Remove from the heat. The mixture should be creamy, not dry. Add more broth if it looks dry to you. Serve right away.

Cover of the first American Edition,
Charles Scribner's Sons (1950). The title of the book refers to a comment made by Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, during his delirium as he was nearing death:
 "Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees." The art on the dust jacket, which begs for Freudian interpretation, was painted by Heminway's love interest while in Venice, the 19-year-old Adriana Ivancich on whom the character of the Contessa is based. 

Hemingway's novel "Across the River and Into the Trees" is about a love affair. But there is not much of a love affair between Richard Cantwell, the fifty-year-old protagonist, and Renatta, his paramour, who is an eighteen-year-old Contessa. The two share some romantic moments, but more pronounced is the love Cantwell has for Venice, a city which for him can have no rival. 
Cantwell is a battle-scarred army officer, is a colonel in the US army who has advancing heart disease. He is facing the fact that he's approaching death. During a visit to Venice, he reminisces about his time spent at the Veneto as a young soldier. It was during the Great War, and it seems that every Venetian corner reminds him of that time. Back then, he believed that he was immortal, and immortal even in battle, but now he realizes immortality is lost. 
I believe that's why he has one last, spontaneous affair with someone so much younger than himself; he's trying to recapture a youth long gone. The Contessa, in turn, is mourning her deceased father: we get the sense that her attraction to Cantwell stems from a wish to be a daughter again.  
Not a prudent union if it can even be called a union. Hemingway by no means convinces us that there is a real meeting of the souls between these two. It’s ironic that Cantwell often calls his young love interest “daughter,” something certainly considered an unfortunate misnomer in today’s society, but alas quite acceptable in 1950, the date of the novel’s publication. Interestingly, Heminway gave the sobriquet "daughter" to all young women he was attracted to. And, also interestingly, he insisted that everyone call him "Papa Hemingway." I suppose this was a way of asserting his dominance over others, particularly over women. 
During a trip, Cantwell summons up recollections of his past. After a period of introspection, he experiences chest pains and dies. He faces his approaching death with bravery and goes into death with the same sense of purpose he had when going into battle. That's the Hemingway method; when resistance is no longer possible, face the inevitable with bravery.  
In assessing the novel, I would say that although the story holds our interest, the writing is erratic. There are good sections and others that are tired and unclear. One senses an ebbing in Hemingway's creative powers and feels that the prose is not authentic, that Heminway is trying to imitate his own writing style. I can hear him say, "enough writing. I need a drink." Indeed, in his last decade, the author spent his time mostly drinking, and additionally, he had serious and constant battles with depression. These situations are not conducive to the art of writing. The novel has an interesting plot but lacks the evocative power and gripping narrative of Hemingway's earlier work.
Hemingway and his wife, Mary Welsh Hemingway, were staying in Venice while he was writing "Across the River and Into the Trees." During a duck shoot, he met Adriana Ivanich, the eighteen-year-old aristocrat on whom the character of the young Contessa is based. He fell in love with her, but she was only flirtatious and flattered by his overtures. They spent a great deal of time together; it's hypothesized that their relationship, although romantic, remained unconsummated. Still, with Adriana present, Hemingway was able to reclaim some of his prowess as an author. He completed this novel and returned to his residence in Cuba. He demanded that his wife invite Adriana to stay with them. No matter how punishing the request, Mrs Hemingway obliged. She saw herself as the facilitator of a great artist and the protector of his ability to write. Adriana arrived in Cuba, and while she was staying with the couple, Ernest Hemingway wrote "The Old Man and the Sea." 
My theory, although unproven, is that a fabulously well-cooked risotto can help one become a better writer. 

This facsimile of the dustjacket is available for purchase. Currently, its price is $22.00 US.